Please Please Me (Album) Pitch Analysis For Accompaniment

If you’ve ever tried to accompany Beatles songs with an instrument tuned to standard ‘concert’ pitch (long defined by the International  Organisation for Standardisation as A above middle C=440 Hz) you’ll soon find that many don’t conform to this convention. ‘Ticket to Ride’, for example, is about one third of a semitone flat of concert pitch while ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is about a third of a semitone sharp: accompaniment of either with an instrument tuned to standard pitch will sound awful, as will many other Beatles tracks. To be clear, the songs are not (generally speaking) markedly out of tune in terms of individual instruments or the way they were tuned to one another; rather, in mastered form the pitch of many songs diverges somewhat from the A4=440 Hz convention.1Note that some orchestras tune slightly sharper than the current ISO recommendation and, historically, many other tuning references have been used.

EMI BTR3 machine.
EMI BTR3. Source: Museum of Making Music.

The first two Beatles albums were recorded, mixed and mastered on emi’s own British Tape Recorder (btr) machines built during the 1950s (pictured above).  To date, the reasons why the seemingly ad hoc pitch discrepancies occur so commonly don’t seem to have been subject to much analysis. Discounting deliberate varispeed manipulation prior to about 1966, three explanations seem possible. Firstly, it may have been the case that original performances (at least those limited to guitars and bass) weren’t tuned to concert pitch; however, this seems unlikely given the rather formal environment at emi’s London studios (now Abbey Road) in the early 1960s. Secondly, tape machine running speed issues may have been been responsible. Tape speed change always alters a recording’s pitch and tempo and relatively minor problems in this respect could have a number of potential causes including mains alternating current frequency instability and general operational wear upon heavily-used recorders.2Mains current frequency stability (generally 50 Hz in the UK in the 1960s) is dependent upon load and was particularly critical in respect of motor-driven recording technology. At emi’s London Studios various solutions ranging from a large centralised power generator to portable varispeed oscillator units were introduced to deal with frequency stability and machine compatibility issues. Ironically, varispeed control doesn’t appear to have been used for documented corrective purposes on Beatles recordings; however, it was commonly used for various tape-based studio effects from about 1966. See generally Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, Recording the Beatles, Houston, 2006. Lastly, magnetic tape can become stretched if played excessively although surviving Beatles master and session tapes appear to be in good condition.3For tape condition see Sam Inglis, ‘Remastering the Beatles‘, Sound on sound, October 2009. Whatever the reason for the discrepancies, for our purposes the solution is to re-tune your instrument to a song’s approximate mastered pitch or use software to re-tune digital audio to concert pitch.

Guitarists and bassists will likely gravitate towards the latter to avoid having to constantly re-tune. You also may want to experiment with the estimates I’ve given as pitch analysis of complex multi-instrumental source material is a subjective and inexact process complicated not only by the issues mentioned above, but also by tuning issues and idiosyncrasies, the mixing or editing together of different takes with slightly different pitch/tuning characteristics, variations in playing dynamics and so forth. For these reasons, I don’t think that there’s much point trying to achieve accuracy beyond about four cents. That said, where noticeable digression from concert pitch occurs you will get a very significant improvement by either re-tuning your instrument or the song accordingly.

Note that I’ve used the 2009 remastered stereo release as my source material (I haven’t yet checked, but there may be differences with mono versions, digital or analogue). In the list below each song’s key is listed as well as my interpretation of the variation from standard concert pitch (in Hertz and cents [one semitone equals 100 cents; in this part of the audio spectrum one Hertz is equivalent to approximately four cents]).4For key identification purposes I’ve generally followed Tetsuya Pujita et al. (transcribers), The Beatles complete scores, London, 1988 and Alan Pollack’s work. The corrective figure for re-tuning the song to A440 pitch in software is also given in cents. Lastly, a similar analysis of the Hard Day’s Night album can be found here.


I SAW HER STANDING THERE

Key: E Major
Mastered Pitch: A4=436 Hz (–16 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +16 cents

MISERY

Key: C Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=433 Hz (–28 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +28 cents

Tape machine speed switching (producing a whole octave change in recorded pitch) was deployed by producer George Martin to facilitate his brief ‘wound up piano’ additions to this song.5This technique formed the basis of the novelty Chipmunk sound and was used by Martin on other Beatles songs such as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘In My Life’.

ANNA (GO TO HIM)

Key: D Major
Approximate Pitch: A4=433 Hz (–28 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +28 cents

CHAINS

Key: B Flat Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=433 Hz (–28 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +28 cents

Ian Macdonald suggests that ‘Chains’ is ‘slightly out of tune’; however, I think it sounds quite good for the most part and 433 Hz gives very satisfactory accompaniment results.6Ian Macdonald, Revolution in the head, London, 2008, p. 74.

BOYS

Key: E Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=431 Hz (–36 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +36 cents

A raucous track recorded in just one take,7Mark Lewisohn, The complete Beatles recording sessions, London, 1988, p. 26. ‘Boys’ does exhibit some slight tuning issues (to my ear more so than ‘Chains’). My preferred compromise is about 431 Hz but you might want to experiment around this figure.

ASK ME WHY

Key: E Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=435 Hz (–20 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +20 cents

PLEASE PLEASE ME

Key: E Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=434 Hz (–24 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +24 cents

The stereo mix of ‘Please Please Me’ required a particularly painstaking form of overdubbing of material recorded in different session takes termed ‘flying in’. This referred to the need to manually synchronise the starting points and operation of two btr tape machines while recording their output on a third recorder (as far as I understand it, to reconstruct harmonica overdubs recorded in late 1962 which appear to have been misplaced or destroyed by the time the song was mixed for stereo LP release in early 1963).8See Ryan and Kehew, Recording the Beatles, p. 365. Due to the potential for phasing artefacts, the ‘flying in’ process could only be performed on brief sections of a song and ‘Please Please Me’ gives good accompaniment results once the overall divergence from concert pitch is accounted for.

LOVE ME DO

Key: G Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=436 Hz (–16 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +16 cents

While this song has a very simple arrangement it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down in terms of pitch (and seems to drift a little in places). 436 Hz is a reasonable compromise for accompaniment purposes.

P.S. I LOVE YOU

Key: D Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=440 Hz

‘P. S. I Love You’ is the only song on Please Please Me that ends up conforming to standard concert pitch.

BABY IT’S YOU

Key: G Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=436 Hz (–16 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +16 cents

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

Keys: E Minor/E Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=431 Hz (–36 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +36 cents

A TASTE OF HONEY

Key: F Sharp Minor
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=432 Hz (–32 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +32 cents

THERE’S A PLACE

Key: E Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=435 Hz (–20 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +20 cents

TWIST AND SHOUT

Key: D Major
Approximate Mastered Pitch: A4=434 Hz (–24 cents)
A440 Song Adjustment: +24 cents

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